He says he is the teachers' friend and sees himself as a martyr for higher standards;Profile;Geoffrey Owen

22nd January 1999 at 00:00
He says he is the teachers' friend and sees himself as a martyr fro higher standards. So should we be rejoicing that Geoffrey Owen was crushed by his own 'Rolls Royce'? Robert Mendick inspects Britain's toughest inspector.

If Chris Woodhead is to many teachers the Devil incarnate, then Geoffrey Owen is his embodiment in the classroom. Or, at least, he was. Last November, OFSTED de-registered him as a primary schools' inspector after a string of complaints. Tabloid newspapers branded him a "school bully" and "the inspector from hell". One headteacher suffered a nervous breakdown after an Owen inspection. Other teachers were left traumatised and in tears.

So OFSTED sacked Owen. At the time, a spokesman told The TES, he had "exhausted his credit". The adverse publicity had finally, after four years, taken its toll.

Woodhead was, it seems, devastated. In a private letter to Owen, he wrote:

"I found the decision to de-register you the hardest I have had to take as HMCI... There may be nothing I can do to help with the future but if there ever is, I will do it. Don't hesitate to contact me if you think I might be able to oil the wheels. I am very sorry to have to be writing you this letter and I am grateful to you for all you did on OFSTED's behalf."

Owen sits in the study of his detached home in the market town of Yeovil and proudly shows the Woodhead letter. He has piles of correspondence built up during his short-lived but incredibly productive career as a schools inspector. He undertook 65 inspections in his four years, equating to one every two weeks. "I was working extremely hard," he says. "I had to be exceptionally organised and very clear what I was doing."

It was a nice little earner. You can work out the sums yourself, but at pound;4,000 per inspection - Owen stresses that's before deductions for tax and other expenses such as accommodation and pension - it comes to an average of pound;64,000 a year, pound;72,000 in peak years 1995 to 1997.

He is surprisingly upbeat, considering the loss of those earnings and the pressure he has been under. His wife Jackie, fed up with the media coverage he has already attracted, didn't want him to give this interview. Owen suggests we remain confined to the study so as not to run into his wife and their four children.

"I am not at all happy about the way things have turned out but it would be fair to say this was anticipated some years ago. I could see the writing on the wall after my second inspection," he admits.

That was in November 1994, when he failed his first school. "After that I realised my own career as an inspector was not going to be easy and that is indeed what turned out to be the case. I also realised then that the unions were going to figure very largely in this."

He survived until November 1998 when he was sacked following a complaint by Christ Church C of E infant school in Downend, Bristol - a school that did not fail but which objected to his "intimidating methods" and staff being left in tears.

Schools, he said, were unable to take criticism. "They could argue about my style in saying I am too direct, but to accuse me of bullying has been hurtful and not justified."

He accepts that his physical size - 6ft 1in and 16 stone - causes a problem. "I can look menacing."

In the early days of OFSTED inspections, schools did not know what to expect. They certainly didn't expect Geoffrey Owen, although his reputation was soon to catch up with him. Out of 65 schools he inspected in four years, he failed 10 while another 10 were deemed to have serious weaknesses. The national average for failing schools is 2 per cent.

There are two explanations for this discrepancy. The first is that Owen, as many headteachers, LEAs and unions protest, is too critical and negative in his judgments, only too delighted to see the worst in a school and rarely seeing the best. He is trigger-happy, they say, failing schools because that's how he gets his kicks. As one headteacher puts it: "I have a fear that OFSTED was the ideal vehicle for Geoffrey Owen's personality." Another head comments: "Geoffrey Owen enjoyed laying it on thick."

The other explanation - and this approximates to Owen's view - is that other inspectors are just too lenient, too weak to follow the letter of the law laid down by OFSTED. They are afraid to fail a school because of the subsequent flak and the work it entails, but Owen was brave enough to recommend special measures according to the evidence of his teams. So word gets around OFSTED that Owen is the man to call in when a failing school looms, while lesser inspectors do all they can to avoid inspecting the more contentious establishments.

"My feeling would be that the actual sample I have been inspecting is not representative," he says. "If you are an inspector and you know a school is likely to prove difficult and fail, you either won't bid for it or you will put in a bid at a price that is unlikely to win. Most inspectors I have met have knowledge of the schools and will not put their head on the block and inspect a school they fear will fail."

Owen sees himself as a champion of improving standards, a latter-day martyr willing to "put his head on the block". "In psychological terms you are asking a question that causes teachers some pain in the sense that they are having to think about things they have never had to think about before. The vast majority of teachers are aware they are working far too hard and that their efforts are not awfully effective. They welcome a third party view on how to make things better."

Many of the battles he fought were in Birmingham from where he was effectively banished by the end of 1996. His reputation there had become so tarnished, headteachers began phoning each other, sharing Owen horror stories. Owen, in turn, stopped bidding for Birmingham contracts.

He claims the problems started when he failed Rookery Road School in 1996 - the only one in Birmingham he did fail. The bandwagon effect, he says, then took over. Twice on inspections he was visited by Tim Brighouse, the city's chief education officer and, some would say, arch philosophical rival to Chris Woodhead.

Brighouse, claims Owen, offered him words of encouragement on one of those encounters. "But," reflects Owen, "I think the knives were out for me in Birmingham."

Owen knows the city well, having taught there in primary and secondary schools for 20-odd years. His subjects were maths and PE. He ended his teaching career in 1986 as deputy head of Handsworth New Road, a secondary school that was closed down because of falling pupil numbers.

For the next six years he worked for Somerset LEA before becoming an inspector. "I had to earn a living," he says. "It was a job that needed to be done."

He continues: "It is a job that, if it is done properly, is enormously worthwhile. Most people in their working lives have an objective assessment of how they are doing. The teaching profession has resisted any attempts for internal self-evaluation. But it was actually what was needed."

Owen is, perhaps surprisingly, fulsome in his praise for teachers. "I have met very few bad teachers and lots who are working damn hard but are poorly led. And that is where I differ from Chris Woodhead. He used to say there are 15,000 poor teachers. I have not come across them." It's the headteachers and the LEAs he cannot abide. "That's where," he says, "the problems lie."

The poorer headteachers are "doing almost everything wrong. Even the most basic management principles are not being followed." He lists a host of failures: lack of support in the classrooms, absence of proper job descriptions, misuse of resources. "What heads forget is that most teachers are crying out for help."

Owen admits to making mistakes, but never over his evaluations of schools. In the early days he chatted with heads to while away the time but says those conversations were later used against him and taken out of context - most famously the quote attributed to him, which he denies, when he is alleged to have told head John Harries that he would be crushed under the wheels of a Rolls-Royce inspection. Harries later had a nervous breakdown and was forced to retire on ill health grounds.

"After that I became an auto-maton, sharing nothing of myself with headteachers," he says.

Owen estimates that in an incredible half of the schools he inspected, heads had quit in the term before his inspection. "That indicates they knew something was wrong and did not want to be around to carry the can for it."

But for now he has had enough of inspections. "When I got the formal letter of de-registration it was with a degree of relief. I had had enough. My family say I am a different person now. Within a year of starting inspections my hair had gone white.

"I think what the teachers saw me as, and quite clearly what the unions saw me as, was the operational face of OFSTED. Here was this person who believed in the independent inspections of schools and saying the same sorts of things as Chris Woodhead. But Woodhead was untouchable whereas I was not. I gave people far too much cause to complain, and they did.

"In the end, although the complaints were not substantiated, the volume became an embarrassment. It is a classic case of shooting the messenger."

Today Geoffrey Owen, the son of an RAF pilot, is starting a new career at the age of 52 as a management consultant. The work is dribbling in, but he admits the family will start running out of money in two to three months. "I am not going to pretend I have not been depressed and hopeful, wondering how I am going to earn a living," he says.

Still, the Owens do not look badly off. His wife is a college lecturer, and there's a smart Audi as well as a "people carrier" parked in the drive.

You can't help thinking Owen misses the limelight and the notoriety and power his role gave him. But he genuinely wants to make schools better and is convinced that OFSTED's way is the way to do this.

His problem in the end was that too many people believed OFSTED was not the way. Eventually, they won the battle, although Owen inflicted heavy casualties. The war, meanwhile, rages on.


Depending on what you read or who you speak to, Geoffrey Owen was either an intimidating, over-zealous mouthpiece for OFSTED or a courteous and personable inspector, whose career has been sacrificed at the altar of education politics. Here are some of those views.

"I feel tremendous anger towards Mr Owen, but I am massively concerned about the way in which OFSTED functions as an organisation. It seems to me the whole episode is not so much the story of a chap (Owen) completely off the rails, so much as the story of an organisation which has created the climate which has made this kind of thing possible and even likely."

John Harries former headteacher of Hillbrook Primary School, south London, who retired on grounds of ill health after suffering a nervous breakdown following an Owen inspection in September 1995. Mr Harries' complaint was the first made publicly against Owen.

"You have a great deal of support in all sorts of quarters. May I say two things? The first is that, as you perhaps already realise, I found the decision to deregister you the hardest I have had to take as HMCI. The second is that I found the courtesy, dignity and intelligence of your Guardian article and TES letter (written by Owen at the time of his sacking) deeply impressive. There may be nothing I can do to help with the future but, if there ever is, I will do it. Don't hesitate to contact me if you think I might be able to oil the wheels. I am very sorry to have to be writing you this letter and I am grateful to you for all you did on OFSTED's behalf."

Chris Woodhead Chief inspector of schools, in a personal letter to Owen.

"Throughout the week, of all of the five inspectors, teachers found him personally the most approachable and the one with the most useful feedback. He was the nicest and the most pleasant of all of them. There were no instances where he treated me or the staff with anything other than courtesy. Maybe he just thought we were wonderful and didn't have anything unpleasant to say. Maybe that is what the issue's about. How people respond to having aspects of their school criticised.'' Peter Farrington Head of The Prince of Wales First School in Dorchester, Dorset. Inspected June 1998.

"At all times both he and his team were professional, courteous, efficient and thorough. We felt that at all times he had the interests of the children at heart and the quality of their education. He was very aware that children had one chance at education and he wanted it to be the best chance they could have. He was supportive to the school, the staff and the governors."

Anthony Marrington Chair of governors at Alt Primary School, Oldham. Inspected February 1996.

"I felt the others (in the team) were very pale figures against Geoffrey Owen. He was the only one who had anything upfront and significant to say when it came to it. I did have a phone call from three headteachers, two of whom said: 'Watch him, he is a bastard' and the third one who actually rang up and asked me to join them in refusing to have him as the registered inspector. You get the impression Geoffrey Owen quite enjoyed laying it on thick. He saw his role as supporting Chris Woodhead in the kinds of statements he is making and being absolute about what good schooling is. I think he gave us a very difficult inspection. It shook me up.But at the end of the day, had I not known he had a reputation, I would have thought it was more about OFSTED than about him. He was very, very thorough, perhaps to the extent of being over-zealous."

Rob Hughes head of Nansen School, Birmingham. Inspected June 1997 "His reputation had gone before him. I was pretty petrified. I was very, very worried. But I found him absolutely considerate and charming all the way through. The trouble was, particularly in Birmingham, Geoffrey Owen had such a mixed reputation... it made the first inspection quite invalid. The consequence was we were made to have a second inspection to clear the air. It got on my nerves to tell people the inspector was Geoffrey Owen and people would say: 'You were lucky. He was in a good mood that week'."

Hugh Heaven head of George Dixon Primary School, Edgbaston, Birmingham, whose school was inspected in June 1995. He then had to suffer another one as a result.

"I was in general broad agreement with the strengths and weaknesses that he reported on. However, I felt the report that he wrote was unnecessarily negative, harsh and contained contradictions. I only realised after the inspection how many of the staff felt intimidated by his presence. He is a big chap. I have a fear that OFSTED was the ideal vehicle for Geoffrey Owen's personality. He left the school saying you will thank me for this in the long run. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Its lasting effect was a very demoralised staff who have a real concern about any form of inspection as a result of what happened here."

Robin Reynolds head of Princethorpe Junior School, Birmingham. Inspected September 1996.

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